At the age of 7, Scott Gration was an even handed diplomat. Every morning at Rethy Academy, a boarding school in northern Congo, he looked at his glass of milk with dread. The school rules said you couldn’t leave the dining room until you had finished your meal. It was 1958, school rules were unbendable.
One evening, he encountered a distraught Sandra McFall, staring at her untouched plate of fried liver and onions. The future US Ambassador to Kenya spotted an opportunity and brokered a quick settlement. Sandra would drink his glass of milk every morning and he would eat her unwanted meat in the evenings.
There are many character-illuminating anecdotes of this kind in Flight Path: Son of Africa to Warrior-Diplomat, a memoir by Ambassador Scott Gration, Major General US Air Force (Ret), which was self-published in America last month.
Some stories are worth telling and this one is one of them. From an out-doors child in the then Belgian Congo to a refugee in Uganda, Maasai warrior on the floor of the Rift Valley, volunteer at Mulago Hospital, Kampala, a fighter pilot in Iraq, a community barber in Virginia, a development worker in Ghana and then a diplomat in Sudan and Kenya, this man’s life has been anything but predictable.
Gration struggled through school. At 17, his reading skills were evaluated at lower than “360 words per minute with minimal comprehension”. But then, which other teenager at his Ridgewood High School in New Jersey had a hunting license from the Kenya Game Department? With a change in focus, Gration overcame his academic disinterest, gained admission to Rutgers University, graduated as a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineer in 1974 and joined the US Air Force, rising through the ranks to the position of Major General.
Have you ever wondered how fighter jets refuel whilst they are airborne? Gration’s story is full of such vivid details on aviation routines, military duty and early developments of drone technology in the search for Osama Bin Laden. Though he has taken the trouble to obtain some illustrative photographs from the US Air Force, Gration is clear from the onset that his memoir is limited to unclassified material. So, for instance, he mentions that in the mid to late 1980s, he worked at the Pentagon and at the NATO Air Force headquarters in Turkey, but the details of what he actually did there remain sealed.
Still, Ambassador Gration has not always played along with the wishes of the American government. On the matter of his exit as US Ambassador to Kenya, he was advised to announce that he was “leaving to spend more time with my family”. Convinced that he had done nothing “immoral, unethical or illegal”, Ambassador Gration opted to be “tactful, but I could not and would not distort the facts”.
CLOAK AND DAGGER
So in the press release announcing his resignation he said, “differences with Washington regarding my leadership style and certain priorities lead me to believe that it’s now time to leave”.
It is clear from Flight Path that Gration is pained by his tenure as the shortest serving US Ambassador to Kenya, not least because both he and Judy — his Kenyan-born, Kijabe-raised wife — had seen his appointment to the highest US executive post in Kenya as “the culmination of our experiences and love for Africa”.
Did Gration’s failure to kowtow to donors and to play the standard diplomats’ game of seeking validation by listening to our well-known cast of civil society actors with their worn-out approaches to effecting dramatic regime change, contribute to his ouster from the embassy in Nairobi?
He was told that he “rocked the boat too hard” on questions of security and embassy personnel. He questioned Kenya’s terrorism rating, which was the same as that of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Gration says nothing about his relationship with Kenya’s security chiefs of the time, and yet he had known some of them from way back in 1981 when he was training fighter pilots for the F-5 Tiger Squadron in Nanyuki.
Ambassador Gration says he was never given any real opportunity to counter the Office of Inspector General’s report that condemned his performance in Nairobi. His supervisor, Ambassador Johnny Carson – of the “choices have consequences” fame — does not come off too well in this cloak-and-dagger episode and depending on how you read it, neither does President Obama.
In his years of academic disinterest, young Gration was always outdoors, tinkering to fix something, to build something, to make it work faster or better. This tendency to innovate manifested itself in the adult Gration, who has always been quick to break from the mould of tried and tested routines, encouraging his team to design new work frames and methods.
Looking back, he concedes that sometimes, this spirit of the innovator “has come with significant personal and professional cost … I should have been more sensitive to the fears and concerns of those who were uncomfortable with change… Unfortunately, some lessons are learnt too late in life”.
Ambassador Gration is equally candid in his reflections on US foreign policy. He is critical of “the expanded fight into Iraq” in the aftermath of 9/11, which “targeted innocent Arabs and Muslims”. He questions the wisdom of the regime change that was instituted in Libya in 2011 and he reproaches America for failing to “remove Sudan from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list as it had promised Khartoum in 2010”.
As President’s Special Envoy to Sudan between 2009 and 2011, Gration rejected the dominant Washington narrative of “ongoing genocide in Darfur”. He understood the tensions in the region differently and identified “24 consecutive miracles” that were necessary to transform Sudan.
His reference to miracles is not an act of literary wit. The son of American missionaries who built schools in Africa, Ambassador Gration is a believer whose go-to inspiration is the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. His formula for bringing peace to Sudan displeased key minds and advocacy groups in Washington.
He was dismissive of the motives of these activists saying, “positive stories about real progress challenged the popular assumptions and undermined fund-raising narratives”. Some believe that his Nairobi fall-out with the State Department had its genesis in these Sudan years. The tensions are described elsewhere as a pull between “Gration’s hysterical religion and Secretary Clinton’s rational assessments of global matters”.
My one displeasure over the style of this book is the final chapter, “Reflections”. This is the chapter that America’s 39th president, Jimmy Carter, describes in the Foreword as “one of my favorites”, but I fail to see the value of its repetitive tabling of the 12 life lessons that Ambassador Gration has already explained in the earlier chapters.
Minor errors like identifying July 31 1982 as a Friday, rather than a Saturday, spoil Gration’s insider account of events in Nanyuki during the 1982 coup. And then there is his clichéd development rhetoric about Kibera: “….largest slum on the continent…. earning less than a dollar a day …area of less than two square miles, about one million people live in abject poverty…”. Sigh.
While many aspects of slum life are truly deplorable, you would expect someone who grew up in Africa to have some demonstrable degree of nuance. Has Ambassador Gration seen the 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census which stated Kibera’s population as 170,070? Equally important, he should ponder the psycho-social significance of slums in a worker’s transition from a rural setting to urban life, a subject that R.A. Obudho, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, addresses with immense clarity. Finally, Ambassador Gration might want to stop and ask just how much a dollar buys in a slum — a nuance that Ndarlin’ P gleefully teases out in his 1999 hit song 4 in 1.
Still, with its insider accounts of planning Senator Barack Obama’s 2006 visit to Kenya, Flight Path: Son of Africa to Warrior-Diplomat, is a welcome addition to our post-independence memory-work. It is not dripping with salacious details about the shenanigans of the Kenya government, but it is still a worthy addition to revelations by diplomats which include The Reds and Blacks: A Personal Adventure by Ambassador William Atwood, who served in Kenya between 1964 and 1966, and Rogue Ambassador: An African Memoir by Smith Hempstone, who midwifed the battle for multi-partyism (1989-1993).
Scott Gration continues to live in Kenya, working as executive chairman of Champion Afrik Limited.